The environment where Gem is boarded is Western, so everyone has spurs on their boots, even the younger riders. I sometimes sit and watch some of the kids ride their horses. Always the poke poke poke action going on. Not hard, but just enough to remind the horse and keep her/him focused.
I really thought that learning to ride without the use of artificial aids was the way to go for me. I wanted to be able to communicate with Gem using my body. But, I had a couple of things going against me: my physical condition (what condition!) and over-thinking each and every little thing.
It became apparent fairly quickly that I was not able to make Gem focus on me or what was expected of him. His mind would drift off constantly, to the point that he would daze over and trip over his own feet. He would get bored and start resisting my cues. I tried going au naturel for the first few lessons and but then had to resort to using a crop to gently remind Gem to focus.
LA has this rule that you ask nicely the first time and if there is no response, then ask a little more forcefully. But you always give your horse a chance to respond before you ask more assertively. Count one, two. Gem rarely responded to my timid taps with my heels. To add to the mix, I found that I was focusing more on when to start counting one, two than on what the message was!! By the time it came to give him a more forceful kick or to using the crop, the communication link was broken. Timing was everything and my timing was way off!
Eventually, I was able to improve my timing. But then there was a new issue. It was like Gem had become desensitized to my "assertive" cues or corrections. In particular, we have the same issue at the same spot when trotting around the arena. As we come up the wall on our left side, he has a habit of bending away from the wall and sort of trotting sideways into the middle of the arena. I don't know why it's always the same spot. It has nothing to do with the arena; he does the same thing outside in the front paddock. I started anticipating this move and would try to keep my inside leg on him pushing him over. Sometimes this worked and sometimes he would push against my leg and start bending to the middle of the arena. I tried using the rein of opposition and tapping my inside leg on to push him back to the wall. This was hit and miss. Eventually, I would have to hoof him with my inside leg to get his attention and then 'push' him over. Having to lift my inside leg off of his side to hoof him naturally would throw me off balance. *sigh*
Don't get me wrong, not all of my lessons are a fight with Gem. I manage. Gem is all hugs and cuddles when it comes to grooming or being hand walked around. But work? He has to be in the right frame of mind. :-) There was a positive outcome of having to correct him regularly though - my balance has improved.
Heading into winter, the stables organized an event where 20 riders did a choreographed holiday performance. I couldn't commit to the practice days, so I asked Jean if she would ride Gem. I thought it would be good for him socially and it would help his focus. After evaluating the horses and riders, the instructor that was managing the event told Jean that she had to get spurs. I was horrified and resisted. I said that if spurs were a prerequisite for participation, then I was pulling Gem out of the performance. LA calmed me down and showed me the type of spurs the instructor was talking about. It was not a Western spur with all the prickly points on it, but an English one. She guaranteed me that Jean had good balance and using spurs would not hurt Gem; using them on Gem would actually help get his attention faster, keep him focused and would eliminate the use of the crop. LA would be coaching Jean on how to use the spurs in our weekly lessons. I reluctantly agreed to let Jean try them.
Jean used spurs once a week on Gem for 6 weeks. I have to admit that I saw an improvement in his responsiveness when I watched the practices. He did wonderfully at the actual performance! He was great with the other horses, did not mind being squished into lines, didn't miss his cues and was not bothered by the audience. The event was a success and I couldn't have been prouder of my gentle giant at the end of the row, towering over the other horses. The instructor, who rides a police horse, had a particular fondness for Gem.
I checked the video I made of Gem when I met him for the first time. Megan, the lady who was selling Gem for the owner, was wearing English spurs when she was putting him through his paces. His previous owner rode him Western and wore western spurs. Could it be that Gem would only take direction seriously if it was punctuated with the slight poke of a spur?
After a particularly hard (good??) lesson recently, LA casually said that I could buy some small nub English spurs. What?! Really?! LA said my legs were much more quiet and I was ready. Three months ago I would never have entertained the idea of wearing spurs. But I have seen the result that they have on Gem. I think the request is clearer to him when spurs are involved and he responds accordingly. I am looking forward to learning how to use this tool. Hmmm, I wonder if there is a model that will make my feet look long and slender??? ;-)
What was I thinking.....?